When I left my job in San Francisco 8 years ago to travel the world, I told my colleagues that I felt like the boy in “The Red Balloon,” sailing into the clouds to an unknown destination. I left, and what started as a six month adventure became an 8-year lifestyle. Houseless, I’ve made the world my home, with unfamiliar rooms and unpredictable rhythms. It has been a romantic time in my life, learning things about the world I never imagined, and freeing myself of a few of my acquired illusions. I’ve lived my longing.
And now my life as a nomad may be coming to an end. In May, I bought a house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I have visited frequently in recent years. I am consciously happy every day in my new home. At times, I am experiencing culture shock — not because I’m in Mexico but because I’m in a house that I’m not planning to leave tomorrow or next month.
I’ve settled (sort of, so far) in San Miguel because, in my travels to 54 countries, I’ve never visited a place that kept drawing me back, a place that I love and seems to love me back. Here are some of the other reasons I’m here.
Mexican culture. Generalizations can be risky but…this is a place where nearly every human encounter begins with “Como estas?” Wearing a mask is a gesture of respect and caring. Taxi drivers don’t complain about the traffic — they comment on the good weather. One of my best San Miguel friends is a 10-year old boy who teaches me Spanish and cleans my sidewalks so he can buy a phone. I feel good all day after meeting with my building contractor (say what?). Money is not a way of life, patience is a virtue, and the street dogs trust you. I can’t imagine hearing a Mexican say, “I’m too stressed out” or “I’m so busy.” Maybe they are, but they focus on other things. Other stuff…
The Enchantment of San Miguel. On almost any day of the week, San Miguel will treat you to some combination of fire works, parades, fiestas, and music. Windows and doorways are decorated with flowers and ribbons. The city is full of artists and writers. But the feeling is not Disneyland. So many people will tell you they sense some kind of deeper magic here. Maybe it’s the astronomical relationship between the sacred pyramids outside town and San Miguel’s main square. The ancients recognized the region as a place with a special connection to something bigger.
San Miguel’s Gringo Community. Many serious travelers say San Miguel is interesting but not really Mexican and too full of “expats” (an elitist term meaning “white, well-heeled immigrants” — I doubt that it’s ever been used to refer to Mexicans living in the US). Of the 174,000 residents in greater San Miguel, about 10,000 are from the US or Canada. It’s true that they, along with tourism, have changed the local community significantly, in both positive and negative ways. I might not come here to explore the depths of Mexican culture, but it’s still Mexico. And if I’m going to live outside the US, I want to be part of an English-speaking community. It’s easy here, whether you have an identifiable interest (like painting or volunteering at one of San Miguel’s many NGOs) or you are just friendly to someone else buying a rug in the local tienda.
No, it’s not dangerous. (There is some petty crime but virtually no violent crime unless you are involved in the illegal drug trade.)
Yes, you can drink the water (It’s either filtered or bottled).
No, it’s not hot (except in May — the rest of the year, the weather is like the Bay Area).
Yes, I miss my family and friends in California (but I can’t bear what is happening to my country).
As for balloons — they are here. From my rooftop patio, I can see them hovering overhead, reminding me that flying is partly a state of mind.